Written for The Pool Short Story Week. If you prefer you can listen to the story here.
Ten days later, the package finally comes. It is a small, brown, padded envelope, her name and address typed on a white label. The postmark is the Netherlands. Inside is a blister pack of tablets, one round and four ovals. No instructions, no warnings, and nothing to identify the sender. She pops out the round tablet there and then, in the hallway, and tries to swallow it down, but her mouth is too dry. She feels it stuck at the back of her throat. She makes it into the kitchen and pours a pint glass of water, drinks the whole thing down. The glass has a dried scum of lace at its neck and the water tastes stale. She can still feel the sensation of the tablet, lodged. There was a fresher, a Geography student, who died after taking diet pills that he bought online. Boiled alive: that’s what the newspapers said. There was a photo of him in his hospital bed, face swollen so much he appeared to have no eyes, the skin on his torso and arms peeling off in raw red patches the size of sycamore leaves. His parents had released it as a warning, a deterrent to others.
It is the last day of April and she has, by repeated calculations, less than one week remaining.
A memory: aged eleven, a Junior Strings weekend away in Carnlough. On Sunday morning the Catholic children go to Mass in the big church on the Bay Road; the handful of Protestants were supposed to stay in Drumalla House and sing hymns with the cello teacher. She goes with the Catholics: the walk along the rocky shore, the sweetshop in the village afterwards. The sense of something forbidden. Her friends line up to receive Holy Communion and she copies them, kneels and opens her mouth and lets the priest place the dry disc of wafer on her tongue. She chews, swallows. Afterwards they tell her she’s going to Hell. They are falling over themselves to tell her. She’s committed a Mortal sin, and because she can’t go to Confession she can’t be forgiven. And she chewed. They are beside themselves with glee. She cries. The cello teacher tells her it’s nonsense, tells the others they’re being silly. Tells them that, incidentally, the word used in John Chapter 6 to describe the consumption of the Eucharist can be understood as ‘to gnaw’ or ‘to munch’, so there they go, and now enough of all that. They say they were only joking.
She hasn’t thought of it for years, but it surfaces now. The dusty room they practised in, the bars of sunlight. The pebbles on that little rocky shore. The gules of light in the stained glass windows of the Catholic church.
She doesn’t know what to do with herself now, with the hours remaining. She checks her phone. 11:11 is the time. Tomorrow, at this time exactly, the other pills, all four of them at once. There is still time today, if she hurries, to make the midday seminar. But she hasn’t been to lectures all week, hasn’t done the seminar prep. She likes the module, likes the tutor, wants to do well. Last term, her supervisor said her idea had PhD potential, and she replayed the words in her head for weeks. So she goes up to her room now and sits at her desk and flips through the handout and reading lists. Gender, Family, Faith: Norms and Controversies. Paradise Lost in Context. Civil Wars of Ideas: Politics vs Religion. You can’t get away from religion, in the seventeenth century. She reaches for the Norton anthology, opens it at random. A ballad. She skims the first couple of stanzas:
Farewell, rewards and fairies, Good housewives now may say, For now sluts in the dairies Do fare as well as they.
Lament, lament, old abbeys The fairies lost command; They did but change priests’ babies, But some have changed your land.
And all your children stolen from thence Who live as changelings ever since.
She stops, heart pounding. Sluts. Illegitimate children.
Changelings, and fairies to blame them upon. Nothing feels neutral any more, she thinks. It never will again.
And then: wise up, she tells herself, and then she says it aloud. Wise up. Wise yer bap: that’s what they used to say in school. Wise yer bap. She forces herself to tap her laptop awake and type out a few lines of the ballad. It’s going to be fine. It’s all going to be fine.
She closes her laptop and lies down on her bed, scans her body for any signs that it’s starting to feel different. What if nothing happens? What if it is too late? The thing is you find out and you think, OK, nine weeks, that’s ages. But then you do the online calculator and realise with a horrible rush that it’s already more than six weeks, coming up to seven. It doesn’t feel fair, the way they count it. Nine weeks is nothing. Nine weeks gives you little more than a fortnight. She found the website that night, Sunday, and by the Tuesday had made up her mind and placed the order. But it still might be too late. If she hadn’t found out until a few days later. Or if it had happened while she still lived at home, or before she had a credit card or a PayPal account. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but the thoughts keep marching back, a fortnight’s well-worn grooves. If you were in England, the GP would have prescribed it to you, the exact same thing. You’d have taken it already, under medical supervision. It would already be over. If this doesn’t work, she still has options. London, or Manchester: she’s researched the clinics online. She wonders will she tell her mum, if it comes to that. Her mum would make the appointments, book the flights, pay for the hotel. Hold her hand in the waiting room and hug her afterwards. Her mum wouldn’t rage at her, or weep like mothers do in films. Her mum would be pragmatic, calm: her mum would handle it all. Why hasn’t she told her mum? Her mum has raised the three of them to believe that they can do whatever they want, that they’re as good as men, that it’s a woman’s right to choose. Her mum would help her. Her mum would be here, now.
She aches for her.
Another memory: the Junior Debating Club, fourth year, or maybe fifth. Kerry Ferguson passing round A4 pictures of babies smiling in the womb, sucking their thumbs. The women should just have them, Kerry Ferguson said. They should have them and give them to people who want them. Almost nobody voted For. Afterwards, when her mum asked how her day had been, she was too ashamed to mention it.
The day passes slowly, seeps into evening. The sky through her Velux window is high and pale. The sounds of her housemates coming in, the clatter of pans, the smells of cooking. Someone smoking in the yard; the smell of it turning her stomach. Is anything happening yet? Eat and drink as normal, the website says, avoiding alcohol in case it skews your judgement. She hasn’t felt hungry all day, has eaten just granola bars, handfuls of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. One of her housemates taps on her door. Is she OK? Yeah, fine, she says, period cramps. Oh God, poor you, I’ve Nurofen if you want? Nah, thanks a million, but I’ve got some here. Fair do’s. Here, we’re going for a pint in a bit if you feel any better. Thanks, I reckon I’ll just stay here though, watch something. OK, cool, give us a shout sure if you need anything. Cool, seeya. Bye.
The sky is streaked with pink now. Her phone beeps with a text from her mum: her grandma has been taken to the Ulster again, another chest infection. Every time it happens they think it’s going to be it this time, but it somehow never is, and after a five-day course of antibiotics Grandma’s discharged back to the nursing home to lie corroding in her rubber-sheeted bed. She can’t think what to text back. Does her mum mean she should visit? She can’t set foot in a hospital: what if it started happening there, in front of all the nurses and doctors? (If there are complications and you have to go to hospital, don’t tell them. They can’t tell, and they don’t have to know. The treatment in any case will be the same. No tests can prove what you’ve taken, what you’ve done.) She starts to reply, deletes it. Her phone beeps again. Don’t mean to alarm you, her mum says, it’s the same sad old story, just thought you’d want to know. A string of x’s and o’s. Then a third message: Are you back for Sunday lunch?
She blinks. Sunday. Sunday lunch. Hope so, she replies, then, Sorry, in middle of essay crisis. Sorry to hear about Grandma. Dad’s with her now, her mum says. It’s just so very sad, isn’t it. Poor Dad.
I’ll text him, she says. A few minutes later her mum sends another text: Good luck with essay! followed by a fountain pen emoji, some books, a cup of coffee and a hamster head. Then another text: Sorry! That was meant to be a lucky cat. Need my glasses!
An evening from her childhood: this time of year, these lingering days and pale, light skies. Their dad has asked their mum to call in on their grandma the odd time during the week, and one night after swimming they do. They scramble out of the car and race across the green then stop, for reasons they can’t put into words, and wait. A chill wind is coming from the lough, cutting straight through their uniforms: green pinafores and blue summer blouses. Their hair scorched dry on top but still damp at the nape of their necks, the sharp, clean smell of chlorine on their skin. Their mum reaches them, takes her youngest daughter’s hand. The pebble-dashed terrace of houses, each with its dolls’-house gate, impeccable roses or trimmed box-hedge borders. Beyond them the garages, beyond that the forest. It’s not really a forest, though they call it that; just a close-growing cluster of larch trees at the back of the estate. The fallen needles make the ground feel soft and springy and not like ground at all. They absorb all sound, too, the road on one side, the estate on the other, so that as soon as you’re through the first row of trees you could be miles or years from anywhere. But now their grandma’s face is looming pinkly in the bubbled glass beside the door, and the door opens inwards, not enough to let them in. Their grandma touching her hair: What’s this, now, is something the matter?
Her minister is there; he’s stopped by after the Mother’s Union. There are slices of buttered fruit-loaf on the table-nest as well as a plate of oatmeal biscuits. The electric heater is pulled out to the centre of the room, its face aglow with all three bars. The minister stands, greets their mum, then all of them by name. The Reverend knows you from the photographs, their grandma says, and touches her hair again, straightens her blouse. Her youngest sister steps forward, pirouettes. Do you like our new hair? They’ve all had it cut for the summer term, from almost waist-length to bobs, because of nits – but he doesn’t need to know that, they see the warning in their mum’s eye. They all shake their heads to show how it swishes. The Reverend says, Vanity, vanity, and their grandma laughs, but his face is serious. Vanity, vanity! he says again. Vanity in young ladies is a terrible thing to behold, for it takes deep root, and what grows crooked cannot be straightened. Their grandma looks at him and stops smiling, and after that she won’t admire their haircuts or even meet their eyes, and they are confused and afterwards their mum is furious.
His face was red and his hair was white and his eyes were bright blue. He’s dead, now, and soon Grandma will be, whether or not it happens this time. The larch trees are gone too, lopped down to stumps.
She makes herself remember, instead, those Tuesday swimming lessons at Olympia. Imagines watching afterwards, through the observation window in the second floor cafeteria, the lane-ropes being dragged into place and the club swimmers powering up and down in their powder-blue caps, flipping into easy tumbleturns, length, after length, after length.
Her housemates go out. She texted him twice, then a third time. He didn’t reply. Her phone said the messages had been delivered, and once she even saw the dot, dot, dot of him composing a reply, but then the dots went away and the reply never came. She saw him a week later in the Clements in Botanic and he was obviously scundered, said he’d lost his phone and only just got a new one. Give us your number, sure, he said, and she did, but she knew he wouldn’t contact her, and he didn’t. After that she could hardly tell him – could she? – why she’d been trying to get in touch. It should be his problem too, but it just isn’t, the world doesn’t work like that. So he’ll never know any of this. He’ll never even suspect. For a strange moment, she feels almost sorry for him. Something about that makes a sort of sense in the middle of the night. But when she wakes, the feeling is gone.
She can’t be in the house. She walks into town, but it’s too early for the shops to be open, and then it starts to rain, heavy and dull. Yesterday’s high, light skies have closed right down, thick cloud and raw, damp air. It is the first of May. Mayday, she thinks. She remembers from Guides that you have to say it three times in a row. Mayday, mayday. She goes back to her student house. Two of her housemates are up, both hungover, smoking in the kitchen. She makes a cup of tea, sits with them a bit. Talks; hears herself talk. Laughs. Tells them about the Sunday in Carnlough, the Holy Communion. They all laugh about it. She goes up to her room. At 11:11 she takes the second lot of pills: all four of them. They’re chalky and bitter under her tongue. At 11:41 they’ve hardly dissolved at all. Her jaw aches with the effort of holding her mouth and tongue still. She gives it until 11:45, watching the minutes pass on her phone. Then 11:50. That has to be enough. She gulps some water from her bottle. She can’t go out again now. The pills are likely to start working within two hours, but may take up to five, or in some cases even longer. She opens her laptop and goes to the website, checks to see if there’s anything she’s missed. Then deletes her browsing history again: clear history, reset top sites, remove all website data.
She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out: and somewhere, etched onto the internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account, what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared.
What else does she feel? Sadness. She wants to have babies one day. She wants to see the blue line and feel giddy with excitement, check its weekly growth. She wants to want it. But not like this. The other thing she feels, to her surprise, is relief. An overwhelming, incredible sense of relief: that she is doing the right thing.
When the bleeding comes, the first dull smear on toilet paper, and then the first, warm drops, she will be so relieved (and sad, and scared) all over again that she will cry. She’s bought maxi-pads instead of her usual Lil-Lets, and the trickling feeling between her thighs will make her think of her first ever period, of climbing into her mother’s lap and feeling too big to be there, sobbing. Everything that is irrevocable now: all that has been lost. You mustn’t think like that. She will remind herself: the bleeding and cramps are likely to be worse than a normal period, and there may be clots. Light bleeding may continue for up to three weeks. In most cases, four to six weeks after the bleeding stops, your period will resume. She will recite it to herself, over and over again, like a litany, a prayer. She will be one of the lucky ones. She will. She will.
Mayday – Audio
Listen to Mayday